A New Sound System
by Ron Chester ★ Monday, November 16, 2020

On the last page of the June 1933 issue of Radio magazine, there is an ad for the 1933 edition of the Short Wave Manual by Don C. Wallace, W6AM. It is advertised as having 164 pgs. It was edited down to 128 pgs in my 1936 edition of the book. I sure would love to find a copy of that first edition. The ad does say it includes an article on how to learn the code. In this article, I will give you details about the corresponding article in the 1936 edition of The Manual. The article is titled How to Master the Radio-Telegraph Code, as I mentioned in my previous posting. But it also has an important sub-title, A NEW SOUND SYSTEM, as I have titled this posting. This is the key to mastering the code.

When Don wrote this article, one FCC requirement for getting licensed as a radio amateur was to prove you could copy the code at ten words per minute. When I got licensed in 1960, they had reduced the requirement to five words a minute. And some were still complaining that was too hard and were not getting licensed, instead of mastering the code.

Don wrote,

But learning the code is slow work. "There is no royal road to knowledge" of it. Nothing but practice and persistence will win the prize. The task is not hard, but it does take time.

And then the key to it all . . .

Long experience has demonstrated that the quickest and most effective way is to memorize one letter at a time --- solely by its sound.

Which is why he called this a new sound system! But when I learned the code in 1959, I heard no mention of learning the code solely by its sound. Somehow that had gotten lost along the way in the intervening years. It was lost technology! Fortunately I found out about this in the early 1980's and I set about relearning the code the right way. Among hams, I think learning code by its sound has been the standard approach ever since, at least as taught by the best teachers.

There are only two sounds that need to be differentiated in learning the code. Surprisingly, Don described these as did and daw. I had never seen them described that way in my over sixty years of hamming. I was taught the two as dit and dah and that is how I've always seen it ever since. Does it matter which way they are spelled? No, because you're just going to be learning the sounds of the code, which does NOT include images of how these sounds are written or spelled. It's an interesting difference though. Next time you're with some of your ham friends, you should be able to amaze them or even win a bet with this obscure tidbit of history.

His system was to learn the sounds of the letters in alphabetical order. Start with A, then go on to B and on down the list to Z. But totally learn each letter, before going on to the next one. It is more common for people to teach the code in a different order these days, but I don't think that is a critical difference. But there are other differences, which I find more interesting. His advice is to learn the code on your own by sending each letter with a key to yourself over and over and over, hundreds of time, gradually getting faster, so that when you hear that sound, you instantly know it is the letter A.  And then his recommendation was to turn on a short wave radio :radio: and listen to a telegraph station sending code over the air and just listen to pick out all the letter A's in their transmissions. I find this advice really interesting. Of course back then there were telegraph stations all over the bands, as it was the main way for messages to be delivered over long distances. These days there can be times when the bands can be pretty dead. But at those times, one could listen to pre-recorded tapes or the code practice files sent every day by the ARRL. And of course, once you have also learned the letter B, you would turn on the radio and practice picking out all the A's and B's being sent. And so on.

Don wrote,

It is better, causing less confusion and safer to learn the code "from the air" than to have someone send to you on a practice set. Of course, the practice set is indispensible, but use it yourself. Send to yourself, listening to your own DIDS and DAWS and repeat the character as many times as necessary, until you know it like the first initial of your name. Go back to the receiving set, often, and select a station in the amateur band. . . Of course it takes time and practice. What's worth knowing is worth fighting for. . . If you practice for one hour a day for 30 days you should be able to "copy" at least five words per minute.  Many amateurs have beat this record by 100%. . . Nobody need help you. In fact, you can actually do it better by yourself. . . Once you know the code, you never forget it, no matter how long you stay away from it. 

Next, a way to get started!